Sorry, Harriet Harman, but Labour's wasted night at the theatre needed a cleverer script

Plus: How ITV rejected Ian Dury and the honour may be all yours, let's keep it that way


It hasn't exactly frightened the horses; in fact it has been
little noticed and even less reported on; but the Labour Party has
made a major policy statement on the arts. In a gathering at a
London theatre, the party's shadow culture secretary, Harriet
Harman, her team, and a couple of fellow Cabinet ministers, spoke
on the importance of the arts and how the arts world must speak up
for culture and fight the Tory cuts.

I feel inclined to sigh, "what a wasted opportunity." Yes, of course, the opposition will say culture is important, yes, of course, the opposition will oppose the cuts (though some of the worst have come, sadly, from a Labour council, Newcastle). But couldn't Harriet Harman and her team also talk about art and about imaginative ways to help more people to enjoy art?

Her predecessor but six or seven, the estimable Mark Fisher, came up with a policy in opposition of making one night a week at theatres national "pay what you can" nights, to encourage new audiences, and those who can't afford the often ridiculously high prices at theatres. It never actually happened on a national scale when Labour was in government, mind you, but at least it was an imaginative and radical idea. Does she have any such radical arts policy to put forward? It seems not. But there is a world out there beyond cuts.

What about, for example, the lack of touring by national companies such as the Royal Opera, Royal Ballet and English National Opera? Labour could surely have a view on this and promise voters in the regions that it would ensure regular tours by the London-based national companies when it came to power.

Ms Harman could always address my own bête noire, booking fees, and promise that Labour will outlaw them and insist that all tickets state the full price of a seat, with no booking fees, handling charges or other linguistic nonsenses added to them. The party would win the election with a landslide, and Ms Harman would be a folk hero.

One of the few non-financial policies I could see in Ms Harman's speech was an idea for councils to use public spaces, parks and empty shops for the arts. Some of this goes on already, of course, but at least it is thinking outside the box. At least it hints that Labour needs to have a detailed cultural policy. But the details are sorely lacking.

So I'd like Harriet Harman to gather her team together again, re-hire the theatre, and make a quite different speech and launch a quite different policy initiative, one that takes it as read that Labour will fund the arts properly and speak up for culture, and instead use the time to detail genuine arts policies that will end the irritation involved in buying tickets for arts events, that will help to bring in new audiences through lower ticket prices, that will order national companies to spend time out of London, that will address such issues as how to increase audiences for classical music or how to address the illegal downloading of music. All of those things that may be more complicated than grandstanding about cuts, but are just as important for the arts in Britain.

How ITV's Brits rejected Dury and Costello

My point last week that the Brit Awards only tended to honour (in their lifetime achievement awards) musicians who were ITV prime-time-friendly, attracted a lot of response. One insider tells me that ITV have in the past also ignored suggestions of Elvis Costello and Ian Dury for the award, both worthwhile contenders. In addition to my own suggestions of Richard Thompson (and, more conventionally, Ray Davies, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin), readers have put forward the likes of Madness and Neil Hannon of Divine Comedy. One reader also suggest a lifetime achievement award for Jethro Tull, but we must be careful not to be too far-fetched.

The honour may be all yours, but keep it that way

The artist Yinka Shonibare has two exhibitions on at the moment. In both he describes himself in the exhibition title as Yinka Shonibare MBE. Mr Shonibare (below) explains that he has incorporated the honour he received in 2005 into his name, saying: "I admire the establishment and want to be a part of it. But I also want to be a pain in the arse to them as well." Hmmm. I believe that artists in their professional life should just use their plain old commoner names in cast lists, film credits or exhibitions. Yinka Shonibare MBE sits uncomfortably with the communality and egalitarianism of art. When he is exhibiting his work in a gallery, Yinka should drop the gong. It is, to use an art-historical term, uncool.

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